Sourpusses and the Summit

Journalists discarded Obama’s Mideast peace summit before it began

CAIRO—If by the end of 2011 a meaningful agreement is reached between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, there will be few if any laurels due to an international press for covering the process with disciplined objectivity.

“The tendency to predict is one of the strongest and most dangerous urges of newspaper reporters,” wrote former New York Times executive editor Turner Catledge in his 1971 memoir, and many reporters previewing the recent peace summit gave in to that urge, openly projecting the failure of the negotiations.

The Guardian reported the day before the initial meeting that “Both sides have set out early demands that have the potential to derail the process.” Al-Jazeera English’s coverage of the summit pointed back to the 1990s, stating that when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated “many hopes for peace died with him.” An MSNBC headline announced, “Obama opens long-shot talks on Mideast Peace.” A headline in a piece by the executive editor of GlobalPost asked, “Peace in the Middle East?,” and then answered, “Probably not.” On Obama working toward a peace agreement, The New York Times’s David Sanger wrote that “History shouts that all odds are against him.” All odds?

This is a non-representative sample of overall summit coverage, but do your own Google News or Lexis search and you’ll find similar teasers and headlines. The BBC recognized the sour media mood in coverage of the summit, headlining that, “World press guarded as Middle East peace talks begin.”

I know that the temptation to pan the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is compelling, believe me. I’ve reported from the Middle East over the last five years. In that time, walls have gone up in Israel—literal, cement separation walls—Hamas took control of Gaza, and Israel launched concentrated and extremely devastating wars on southern Lebanon and Gaza. On the eve of the most recent negotiations, Hamas shot four Israelis dead in the West Bank near Hebron, an act that seemed to achieve its goals: Kill, embarrass the Palestinian Authority, and make a peace deal less likely.

Still, it’s not the business of the press to uniformly dismiss a major international gathering, summit unseen. The press needn’t, and shouldn’t, of course, be the cheerleading team revving up the major players for victory and an awards ceremony in Norway. But neither should “failure” be the brand seared on the conference sign before the paint is dry.

I’m afraid that to some in the press, as among many news audiences, Israeli-Palestinian disharmony involves a centuries-old religious dispute that won’t be solved anytime soon. This is inaccurate and represents lazy thinking. Middle East politics is complicated and can be exhausting, and dismissing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an intractable religious standoff allows one to avoid serious investigation. The current Israeli-Palestinian standoff mostly involves modern land and border disputes over the last 130 years or so and is largely political, not religious, in nature, which is why many Sunni, Shiite and Christian Palestinians are all involved.

This sort of pervading fatalism and a belief in the certainty of failure is what allows many journalists to be more pessimistic in their coverage of Israeli-Palestinian issues than their editors or producers might allow for other topics. It’s hard to imagine The New York Times reporting that “all odds” were against a U.S. president halving the national debt or the eventual success of U.S. combat missions in Afghanistan. In one story on the summit, The Los Angeles Times wrote, “expectations remain low since the Israel-Palestine situation has been a flash point for generations.” “Generations” here could mean four or five decades, but the word gives the sentence an Old Testament feel.

Skepticism does surround Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, even among some of the parties involved in the talks, and journalists observing the discussions should report this. But journalists’ coverage of the past summit reflected more their frustration with the drawn out process, rather than evenhanded reports of the meetings.

I’ll disclose for the record that I’m more optimistic than many observers hoping for a lasting peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. I don’t think an agreement will come in twelve months, as the Obama administration insists is possible, but I believe it will happen. Regardless of whether I’m right, though, journalists covering peace negotiations need to do so with more straightforward reporting that reflects less their personal frustration and pessimism.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin